1974 / Best Director

Film #579: Day for Night (1974)

Moving from one great European director to another as we meet up with Francois Truffaut for what surprisingly was his only appearance in the directorial category for his work on Day for Night. Truffaut is one of those directors whose work was discussed heavily during my film studies courses with films such The 400 Blows and Jules et Jim being regarded as classics. However Day for Night was a movie I’d previously had little knowledge of but after watching it I wasn’t surprised that the academy loved it as much as it did as it was another film about film-making which as we know is an Oscar favourite.

The film being made in Day for Night is Meet Pamela, a melodrama of sorts which is played out throughout the course of the main movie. However Day for Night is much more about the filming process, the relationship between the cast members and their relationship with the movies themselves. In a bit of meta casting, Truffaut himself plays the director Ferrand, a cinema-lover who seemingly has trouble navigating the personal lives of his key cast members. Those cast members include world-renowned British actress Julie Baker; who plays Pamela, ageing diva Severine, fading French screen icon Alexandre and the tortured heart-throb Alphonse who is currently having a relationship with one of the crew members. The brilliance of the screenplay for Day for Night meant that it cut superbly from the personal lives of the film-makers to the problems of filming on a budget and with a distinct time scale. It was interesting seeing the film-making process told from the point-of-view of a director whose been there many times before and even the opening orchestration of a crowd scene was perfectly pitched. In fact even before this the opening titles were accompanied by a score which included snippets over the composer informing the orchestra of how to play each of the notes. The title itself is also a reference to a filming technique in which scenes set at night are shot during the day and referred to by the French as ‘nuite American’; hence the international title for the movie.

One of Day for Night’s best elements is the performance by its ensemble cast who all bounce off each other spectacularly leading the audience to believe that their characters know each other intimately. A lot of the time, certainly during some more of the inconsequential scenes, Day for Night reminded me of a Robert Altman film and in particular Nashville which had a similar structure when it was release a couple of years’ later. Of the cast I think Valentina Cortese was the stand out star as the ageing diva Severine she owned each scene she was in and was utterly convincing as an actress whose big roles were behind her. Cortese also proved to have perfect comic timing including in one of the best scenes in the film in which Severine and Alexandre are trying to rehearse a scene in which she always ends up opening a door to the crockery cupboard rather than the exiting through the door to leave the room.  Cortese received a rare honour when she became one of only a handful of performers to be nominated for an acting Oscar in a film not in the English language. The big star of both Day for Night and Meet Pamela was Jaqueline Bisset whose character Julie’s life unravels as she makes a couple of poor judgements during her time on the film. I also found Truffaut himself was great as the man anchoring everything together and I feel the character he played here was very similar to his own personality especially when it relates to Ferrand drawing inspiration from other directors he admires.

On the other side of the camera Truffaut also excelled employing several interesting camera angles as we were lead down corridors and through doors of the hotel were all the cast and crew were staying. Furthermore I enjoyed when Truffaut made the audience feel like they knew what they were watching only to subvert their expectations and change what was happening. The original idea behind this Best Director journey was to see if any of these movies should have been included in the Best Picture bracket and I believe Day for Night definitely should have been up for the main prize. Oddly though a lot of these foreign movies feature at two different ceremonies; one where they compete for Best Film Not in the English Language and then for the main prizes the following year. It happened with the likes of The Emigrants and Amarcord and similarly Day for Night had already won the Best Foreign Film award the year before. That being said Day for Night was a much better film than the rather dated disaster movie The Towering Inferno and in my opinion it would sit comfortably among other classics nominated that year including Chinatown, The Conversation and The Godfather Part II.

This leg of foreign-language best director films continues with another French film albeit one that features a big American star in a leading role.

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